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Some religions of the secular

Some religions of the secular
Back in 1991, a local group of retirees invited me to lecture on “Southern Religion”. It was obvious they had in mind its Presbyterian and Episcopalian, and maybe Methodist and Southern Baptist, forms. They were somewhat flabbergasted when I started the session by asking what major religious denomination they had in mind: football or Elvis?
Both football and Elvis have major religious bodies formed around them.
Their followers number in the hundreds of thousands. Indeed, since numbers count for a great deal in religious denominations, they are the South’s most successful religions.
As with more traditional religious faiths, football and Elvis have: rituals (pregame prayers, the national anthem, half time ceremonies, and fanny pats for football/ entrance screams, towel tossing, and pelvis grinding for Elvis) relics (trophy cases for football/ pink Cadillacs and gold records for Elvis; autographs for both) symbols (Saints, Angels, or Padres for football/ a guitar with sequined sideburns for Elvis)martyrs (the Gipper and Ronald Reagan for football/ Priscilla for Elvis) prophets (Bear Bryant, Vince Lombardi, and Knute Rockne for football/ Colonel Parker for Elvis)false prophets (Tampa Bay and Northwestern for football/ imitators and not-so-look-alikes for Elvis) deacons and elders (cheerleaders and majorettes for football/ bodyguards and groupies for Elvis) sacred places (stadia and end zones for football/ Vegas stages and Graceland for Elvis) scriptures (sports pages, Sports Illustrated, regulations books, and statistics for football/ entertainment gossip magazines, recordings, video biographies, and movies for Elvis) epiphanies (bowl games for football/ an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show for Elvis) tragedies (flunked drug tests and missed field goals for football/ flunked drug tests and the army draft and early death for Elvis) miracles (completed field goals as the clock runs out for football/ sightings in Indiana Burger Kings for Elvis) revivals (fourth-quarter comebacks and improved next seasons for football/re-releases of recordings and replays of videos for Elvis) hymns (“Down the Field” and “Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow Wow Wow” for football/ “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Love Me Tender” for Elvis) evangelists (press agents for both) communion meals (beer and hot dogs for football/ pizza and fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches for Elvis) offertory collection plates and their treasurers (television revenue and gate receipts for football/ record sales and Graceland tickets for Elvis)televised services (ESPN any night or day, other channels Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays only, for football/ re runs and film festivals for Elvis) most especially, their congregations of die-hard disciples and pilgrim zealots (the fans of both) and their low-blow skeptics and detractors (sportswriters for football/ drama critics for Elvis).
“There are no atheists in foxholes”–nor in Super Bowl stands, nor in Graceland lines. If religion is, as Alfred North Whitehead said, whatever we hold to be most ultimate, or is, as Paul Tillich said, the Ground of Being, then football and Elvis faithful are fundamentalists in the heavenly city and doormen for the Houses of Lords.
People are hungry for something into which they can place their atrophied faith, for something to which they can make unreserved commitments, something that doesn’t threaten them with damnations they feel too much of everyday, something that promises them leisure and hope, symbols and ornate trappings.
The surge of patriotism after 9-11 was evidence of souls in search of a revival, but we can’t invade a country every weekend. Football and Elvis sects meet a consistent consumer demand more regularly and at lower costs than do wars. Who remembers Sgt. York’s or Audie Murphy’s serial numbers? Who doesn’t know the numbers of their favorite quarterbacks or the lyrics of Elvis’s biggest hits?
Facetious as it may sound, it is nevertheless a fact that football and Elvis-following are forms of popular religion. That fact casts no aspersions upon the players or Elvis, nor upon the fans of either or of both. The breadth of their followings and depth of their faiths can also be found in bullfighting in Spain and in soccer in Italy, and in basketball’s March Madness and baseball’s pennant races and NASCAR’s numbing circlings here at home.
But the fact that these pastimes are forms of religion does cast a very bright spotlight on the real nature of our world. We blind ourselves badly when we fail to admit how seriously we take our gratifications and our passions. We elevate secondary things to ultimates, and we make religions out of golden calves.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu Published in The Messenger 10.01.07

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