Bobble-head Jesus? A crucifix in your Cracker Jacks? This is the valley of the shadow of greed Major League Baseball hath begun to venture into after the July 27 debut of “Faith Days with the Braves” at Turner Field in Atlanta. Faith Days is a spectacle, as the New York Times wrote, where “churches will get discounted tickets to family-friendly evenings of music and sports with a Christian theme. And in return, they mobilize their vast infrastructure of e-mail and phone lists, youth programs and chaperones, and of course their bus fleets, to help fill the stands.”
In Atlanta, fans also had the privilege, as the Christian Science Monitor wrote, of hearing “Braves star pitcher John Smoltz share how his life changed by believing in Christ.” The event also included a hefty helping of Christian Rock, led by Aaron Shust, who, according to promotional materials, is the voice behind the “hit single ‘My Savior My God’ [which] reached #1 on six charts simultaneously for four straight weeks.”
It’s easy to mock the transparent commercial trappings of Faith Days. Major League owners, once called “a den of idiots” by late Orioles boss Edward Bennett Williams, are clumsily trying to maximize their manna with little concern as to whether Christ himself would toss them out of the temple. It’s also easy to point out that despite PR efforts calling the Faith Days scheme an ecumenical promotion, no synagogue, mosque or Buddhist temple has been invited to take part.
But Faith Days is about more than family-friendly Christian entertainment with a twist of commerce. Beneath the veneer, it represents the ugliest edge of right-wing evangelism and its advancing influence. The Higher Power behind Faith Days and Nights is a group called Third Coast Sports. Third Coast Sports president Brent High says, “We’ve been very careful to make sure what we’re not about is ambush evangelism.” But go to their website, and it’s quickly revealed who the mastermind behind Faith Days is: Third Coast Sports proclaims with pride that “Focus on the Family, one of the largest evangelical organizations in the nation, has joined Third Coast Sports to sponsor ‘Faith Nights’ and ‘Faith Days’ at ballparks nationwide this summer.”
But the owners aren’t eager to let the public in on that bit of information. In all the articles about the start of Faith Days, including the press release of the Atlanta Braves themselves, there is no mention of Focus on the Family’s role behind the proceedings. It’s not hard to see why. According to People for the American Way, FOF is “anti-choice, anti-gay, and against sex education curricula that are not strictly abstinence-only…. FOF also focuses on religion in public schools, encouraging Christian teachers to establish prayer groups in schools. FOF supports student-led prayer in public schools, although it points out that it doesn’t support teacher-led prayer for fear that a teacher would encourage Christian students ‘to pray to Allah, Buddha or the goddess Sophia against the wishes of the parents and/or students.’ ” It is also perhaps the leading proponent of “reparative therapy” for homosexuality, and its leaders agitate against the adoption of children by gay couples. Their obsession with what they call “the homosexual agenda” is shared by Smoltz, who in 2004 likened gay marriage to “marrying an animal.”
Focus on the Family’s guru is James Dobson, who, as Max Blumenthal of The Nation reported, chose the second night of Passover last year to say, “The biggest Holocaust in world history came out of the Supreme Court” with Roe v. Wade. Dobson has also compared embryonic stem-cell research to Nazi experiments conducted on live humans. This isn’t necessarily bad, according to Dobson, who also said, “The Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there would have been some discoveries there that benefited mankind.”
Dobson likes to speak of being engaged in a “civil war of values,” and Major League Baseball, we can only assume, is his next strategic hamlet. This is a tragedy. Baseball has always prided itself on being the great secular assimilator. In the early part of the twentieth century, white immigrants of all languages, religions and ethnicities would go to the ballpark and feel reborn as part of the grand American experiment. A similar pattern held for African-Americans and Latinos, with Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente both becoming powerful and enduring symbols of people fighting for their rightful seat at the American Table. This history may contain a healthy measure of self-serving folklore, but it’s a myth that speaks to the best angels of our nature: a sense of community, acceptance and tolerance.
Faith Days and Nights should be exposed, picketed and, most of all, shunned. Let the emissaries of Dobson preach in peace outside the park. Inside is sacred space.