Branding Faith in the Church of Baseball
Baseball communicates important ideas about American identity. Throughout its history, the “national pastime” has been associated with the virtues of competition, fair play, inclusion, and meritocracy. Indeed, it has often been invoked as a metaphor for democracy itself. As a prominent cultural institution, it has even been granted a kind of religious significance, presumably because the “church of baseball” welcomes people of all kinds. As sportswriter Lou Gelfand declares, “We celebrate baseball in America precisely because it knows no political party, no religion, no ethnicity.”
But what happens when the exclusive commitments of a particular religious faith threaten to undermine baseball’s ecumenical spirit? This is the risk posed by a recent phenomenon called “faith events,” or, most commonly, “Faith Nights.” Faith Nights operate with the logic of common ballpark promotions, yet they are designed as evangelical outreach events in support of conservative Christian commitments and organizations. Consequently, these promotions alter the metaphor of baseball as a church and compromise the game’s inclusive idealism. After reviewing numerous accounts of Faith Nights across the country and attending three of them myself (one each in 2007, 2008, and 2009), I have concluded that these events use the language of typical ballpark promotions yet restrict the range of identities and voices that may participate in the “church of baseball.”
Brent High developed Faith Nights in 2002 while working for the minor league Nashville Sounds organization. By 2008, more than 75 events took place at minor and major league ballparks across the country. The idea is simple enough: appeal to baseball fans of faith by promoting the game with Christian-themed giveaways and promotions. A typical Faith Night will feature a pre-game concert by a contemporary Christian musical artist (such as Hawk Nelson or Stephen Curtis Chapman), conspicuous references to local churches, and post-game Christian testimonials by members of the local team. Some events also include giveaways, including Bibles or the bobble-heads of Biblical characters such as Moses and Noah. The combination of the national pastime with Christianity has been a success in marketing terms. As C. J. Johnson, marketing director for the Class A Hagerstown Suns, states, “Baseball, faith, and Americana, it’s a perfect fit.”
It may be a perfect fit for those who identify with evangelical Christianity, but is the “faith” in Faith Night the inclusive term it might appear to be on the surface? The answer is no, largely because the interests that make Faith Night possible have specific and, in some cases, very narrow religious and political commitments that weaken the metaphorical association of baseball with democracy. The primary backing for Faith Nights comes from Third Coast Sports, Inc., a “non-profit ministry focused on reaching today’s generation for Christ through sports and music,” founded by Brent High after he left the Nashville Sounds. Baseball has thus become the latest site for faith-based marketing, an idea that has become commonplace in various forms of popular culture. In other words, Faith Night represents a brand of Christianity that, far from being inclusive, excludes any but the most conservative of Protestant perspectives.
Evidence of the brand is found in the various associations made between Third Coast Sports and other evangelical organizations. When the Atlanta Braves became the first major league franchise to promote Faith Night the primary sponsor was Focus on the Family, an organization largely viewed as hostile to feminists, gays and lesbians, and others who do not adhere to conservative interpretations of Christian values. Focus on the Family’s presence provoked a backlash in Atlanta, but the organization continued to sponsor Faith Night in the minor leagues. Meanwhile, other events are sponsored by local businesses and organizations, such as Colorado Christian University, LifeWay Christian Stores, or various Christian radio stations.
When I attended a Faith Day in 2009 at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, the game was sponsored by Prasco, Inc., and the Creation Museum. Prasco is a Cincinnati-based pharmaceutical company founded by Thomas Arington, whose family foundation uses sport to perform evangelical outreach with youth groups. The Creation Museum, meanwhile, is a conservative Christian effort to refute scientific theories of evolution and to assert the primacy of the Bible. It was built and is operated by Answers in Genesis, Inc., a not-for-profit evangelical organization committed to Young Earth Creationist theology, from which it argues that the earth was created by God in six days approximately 6,000 years ago and that humans and dinosaurs co-existed. In addition to multi-million dollar animatronic displays that show people living with dinosaurs, the Creation Museum also warns visitorsa bout the “evils” of gay marriage, extra-marital sex, and abortion.
The religious and political convictions communicated by organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Creation Museum are reinforced through the musical performances, appearances by characters from the popular evangelical television show, VeggieTales, and player testimonials. These combined efforts are much less about “faith” than they are about “Jesus.” Accordingly, critics of Faith Night have noted the exclusionary nature of the event. As Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, contends, “It really should be called ‘Jesus Night.’ If they were really interested in Faith Night and had all 11 of [the faith groups in the conference] coming, people who are promoting Faith Night wouldn’t want to come.”
Despite such criticisms, baseball organizations continue to promote Faith Night (or, in many cases, “Family and Faith Night”). These events occur in the context of more Christian-based marketing, more efforts to link Christian identity with lifestyle (Rick Warren’s “purpose-driven life” or Joel Osteen’s “health and wealth” philosophy, for example), and more overt public expressions of Christianity by athletes. For example, after a 2007 “Christian Family Day” at St. Louis’ Busch Stadium, where instead of regular baseball cards fans received “testimony cards” depicting their favorite players, superstar Albert Pujols defended the purpose of the event against potential criticism. “I don’t think we’re offending anybody. We’re bringing our Christian testimony to people who need to hear it. What better place for that than a ballpark?”
Pujols’ comments reveal the tension between using faith events merely as a marketing tool to increase ticket sales and the overtly persuasive intent of those involved with the event itself. Indeed, his claim that baseball audiences need to hear his message is fundamentally at odds with any conception of the “national pastime” as a pluralistic institution. Nevertheless, I do not wish to suggest that religion has no place in baseball or in a democratic culture. What is crucial is that we not allow the common language of marketing and promotions to obscure the religious and political commitments that are attached to the organizations that make Faith Nights possible. Nor can we allow only one “brand” of religion speak for all people of faith. Instead, we must understand that “faith” entails a range of identities—Christians, conservative and progressive alike, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and so on. Only by ensuring its ecumenical spirit can the “national pastime” truly be the “church of baseball.”