On Appeals to “God” in American Presidental Politics and Professional Sports

Have you ever noticed how often some reference to “God” or “the Big Man Upstairs” is referred to in American presidential politics and professional sports?

Yesterday after winning the Super Bowl Payton Manning thanked “the Big Man Upstairs” for helping his team to win. Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks believes that “God” cares who wins the Super Bowl. Other athletes have said they are not so sure. And some have said that God either doesn’t exist or has “He” (God is always a single male in sports and politics) has no interest at all in our American past-times and sports teams.

Nearly all political candidates – whether liberal or conservative, communitarian or libertarian – involve the name of “God” as their supreme source of spiritual guidance and moral strength. This obscure gnostic deity is invoked as a cipher that can mean pretty much anything one want’s it to mean. It is a “contentless banner.” The main thing is that this presumed deity — the highest order of reality — is on our side authorizing the legitimacy and ascendency of our team, party, cause, agenda, policies, campaign, crusade.

Of course some purists would insist that the important this is that we are on God’s side rather than that God is on our side, as if there is any real difference when human rhetoric, semantics, preaching and propaganda are concerned. We can find biblical proof-texts for any position on any issue we wish to take.

Throughout the ages man has continued to “re-imagine and re-invent God” as a transcendent, immanent and/or relational spirit, power, essence or entity; a pervasive presence, an eternal being, an emergent process, a universal mind, a righteous will, a compassionate heart, a suffering servant, a strict parent, and beloved friend, a passionate lover, a creative soul, the ineffable Tao, the unnamable Source “in which we live and move and have our being.” Man continually constructs and deconstructs the cipher and chimera we call God. One can appreciate why some religious communities prefer not to write the name of God, but rather to refer to god as “GXD” to emphasis the mysterious and unknowable, the inscrutable and bewildering.

I am not interested in settling for others the question as to whether this mysterious (some would say paradoxically hidden and self-revealing) GXD actually exists in any meaningful sense of the word, but only to notice how we “use” this weasel word in popular culture, especially in presidential politics and in professional sports. The word “God” continues to be a part of our popular American lexicon, however obscure, evasive, polyvalent and protean its meaning. For a majority of Americans it continues to be a touchstone, a talisman, a vague reference to something higher, spiritual, moral uplifting, but what that “something” is and what principles and values it stands for is anybody’s guess. In the American Civil War both the Union and Confederate soldiers believed they were killing their estranged brothers for a righteous cause and that God was on their side. Eisenhower said, “I think Americans should believe in God, and I don’t care which one.”

Some people foolishly think the lesson here is that if people no longer believe in God that all the conflict, cruelty, hatred and killing around the world will stop. But when men stop fighting and killing “for God” they find something else, some other highest value and belief, to take God’s place, whether blood and soul, nation and race. In so far as God is a projection of our plurality of human values and interests, man will always fight for these when they appear to be threatened by competing values and interests. Whether he fights in the name of God or Man, Religion or Science, Aristocracy or Democracy, Tribalism or Nationalism, man will attempt to justify his fear, hatred, arrogance and violence under the name of one abstract reified cipher or another. Today in the secular west when appeals to God are in decline, man will continue to call upon various other ciphers such as honor, courage, freedom and patriotism to make war on the enemies of the homeland. Whether God or no God, man will always find some cipher under which he is more than eager to fight to the death and create more killing fields.

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