Sports and Religion in North America

image of book cover

Randall Balmer 
Dartmouth College

Date: Wednesday, October 12, 2022
Time: 12 - 1:15pm
Location: Boisi Center, 24 Quincy Road, Conference Room 101

RSVP:  WAITLIST ONLY - We will notify you is space is available.
Click this link to sign up for luncheon colloquium. RSVP required for head count to order food.


Each of the four major team sports—baseball, football, hockey, and basketball—has its own history, meaning, and symbolism. Based on his new book, “Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America,” Randall Balmer explores the nuances of each sport and suggests that, in terms of popularity and devotion, sports may be America’s new religion.

Speaker Bio

Randall Balmer

Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College, is the author of eighteen books, including “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right” and “Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter.” His second book, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America,” now in its fifth edition, was made into an award-winning PBS series. His commentaries on religion in America appear in newspapers across the country.

Read More

Balmer, Randall. Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2021.

Balmer, Randall. Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism. Rev. and expanded ed. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004.

Balmer, Randall. God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. 1st ed. New York: HarperOne, 2008.

Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Balmer, Randall. Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life. Lebanon, NH: Truth to Power, 2021.

Additional Resources:

Alpert, Rebecca T. Religion and Sports: An Introduction and Case Studies. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.

Galos, Raluca. “Sports' Sociology.” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 10, no. 29 (2011): 218–223.

Harvey, Lincoln. A Brief Theology of Sport. First US edition. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.

Higgs, Robert J. God in the Stadium: Sports and Religion in America. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1995.

Massa, Mark S. Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1999.

Serazio, Michael. The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in America. New York: New York University Press, 2019.

In the News

In an LA Times article, writer Randall Balmer responds to former high school football coach Joseph Kennedy’s prayer practices on the 50-yard line in front of fans and students. Balmer uses the credibility from his book, Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life, to comment in light of the U.S. Constitution and Bible, on private and public prayer. Balmer’s arguments are based on claims of infringement of the first amendment by Kennedy’s actions. Balmer claims that Kennedy’s acts and disregard for separation of church and state cause “a devaluation and trivialization of religion” and do not follow Jesus’s definition of prayer (Matthew 6:6). This is an interesting stance reflected within Balmer’s new book: if public prayer does not have a place in state-funded sports practice, will the overlap in religion and sports overlap be laid bare?

Inspired by Americans’ captivation by sports, Randall Balmer, the John Phillips Professor in Religion at Dartmouth College and member of the Boisi Center’s Board of Advisors, wrote a new book titled, Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America. On October 12, Balmer participated in a well attended lunch colloquium at the Boisi Center, entitled “Sports and Religion in North America,” where he discussed his recent publication and engaged in a riveting conversation about the intersection of America’s two passions.

The luncheon commenced with Balmer’s explanation of how football became America’s game; it conquered, what he describes as, “the three R’s: region, race, and religion.” Football successfully spread to the south because it is a military-style game, and the south is embedded in a culture of militarism. Racial integration–albeit violent–also occurred on the field, which led to the sport’s increasing popularity during the mid-twentieth century. Furthermore, football spread across religious groups. Specifically, Boston College, Fordham, and Notre Dame embraced football as an opportunity to “beat Protestants on the field,” which further contributed to American Catholic identity formation.

The presentation transitioned to exploring James Naismith’s creation of basketball in 1891. As a Presbyterian, the Calvinist ideals of seeking boundaries and limits appears in basketball’s tight court dimensions. Balmer also accredits the game’s rise in popularity to its founding moment. In order to win a basketball game, one must successfully move through a small space without running into other players: skills needed to survive in a rapidly urbanizing society.

Balmer concluded his lecture describing how sports fanaticism manifests itself as a religion for many Americans. Today, church services will be moved so they don’t interfere with sports events; people don’t want to miss a game for Mass, revealing where Americans’ priorities lie. Over the past few decades, religious adherence has decreased while sports fanaticism has increased dramatically–especially among white males. Individuals’ communities now surround sports teams rather than religious institutions.

An enriching Q&A followed Balmer’s presentation; the conversation discussed transcendent moments that occurred in sports, including Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary pass. It also addressed how Americans have transitioned from looking to theologians–such as MLK and Reinhold Niebuhr–to looking to athletes–including Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James–for moral guidance.

Randall Balmer
Randall Balmer during presentation
Randall Balmer during presentation

Photo Credits: Christopher Soldt, MTS