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Keeping pro sports kosher: Proselytizing widespread, says author
Washington Jewish Week / November 25, 2009

By Larry Luxner

Four years ago, as the Washington Nationals played their inaugural season at RFK Stadium, controversy erupted after an article appeared in the Washington Post describing the efforts of Baseball Chapel — an evangelical Christian ministry that's been providing chaplains for all major and minor league baseball teams since the mid-1970s.

In the article, 26-year-old outfielder Ryan Church recounts how he asked the Nationals' then-chaplain, Jon Moeller, if Church's Jewish ex-girlfriend was doomed to hell for not accepting Jesus Christ as her personal savior and how Moeller responded by nodding yes, leading Church to tell the Post,"I was like, man, if they only knew. Other religions don't know any better. It's up to us to spread the word."

That little exchange outraged two baseball-loving rabbis — Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Shalom National Synagogue and Ari Sunshine of Charlotte, N.C. The Nationals suspended Moeller after Herzfeld held a press conference to denounce Church's remarks, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig apologized in a letter to Sunshine, telling him, "I was deeply offended by what happened with Ryan Church and Jon Moeller."

The 2005 incident is highlighted in "Onward Christian Athletes," a new book by Oregon-based religion writer Tom Krattenmaker that uncovers the extent to which proselytizing goes on in the world of professional sports.

Last week, Krattenmaker discussed his research in a lecture at Georgetown University, and Sunshine — now the rabbi at conservative B'nai Shalom of Olney — was among those in attendance.

"This is not some non-controversial form of generic faith that's being promoted. It's a strong emphasis on Christianity and salvation through Jesus Christ alone," Krattenmaker told his GWU audience. "This is their belief, and they're absolutely entitled to it. But there are numerous stories of evangelism to Jews and other non-Christians in professional sports, and how non-Christians feel pressured to go along with the prayers."

He added: "The tension is not between Christians and Jews, or between believers and non-believers, but between evangelicals and the rest of us Jews, Muslims, moderate and liberal Christians — and tolerant non-believers — who espouse diverse beliefs."

Krattenmaker, 49, a Catholic by birth who considers himself "somewhere between a liberal Christian and an agnostic," grew up in suburban Minneapolis and was a huge fan of both the Twins and the Vikings.

"This was a coming together of two major interests. Iíve watched sports my whole life, and I also studied religion," said the journalist, whose research for the 220-page book spanned an eight-year period.

"I was very motivated by what I saw as the misuse of Christianity in public life, especially in politics," he said. "There have been so many books written about religion and politics, but what I was seeing in sports was part of this broader story, and I thought it had not received the critical examination it deserved."

Krattenmaker wrote "Onward Christian Athletes" because of what he saw as growing dissonance between the values of pro sports and the values of traditional Christianity. He calls Herzfeld "a key figure" in his book.

"He told me about the meaning sports had for him and his classmates when he was a kid growing up in New York. Television was frowned upon, but sports were an exception," Krattenmaker said. "Sports were kosher, and he grew up loving the Knicks, the Jets and the Mets."

Krattenmaker said the incident with Ryan Church at RFK Stadium that so angered Herzfeld and Sunshine was only one of dozens of examples in professional baseball, football and basketball in which players attempt to promote their Jesus-based evangelizing at the expense of other religions.

"Bud Selig, who's Jewish, promised to look into this, but he never said another word about it publicly," the author insisted. "My repeated requests for information over the next several years were ignored."

In his letter to Selig, Sunshine wrote: "How many of the 3,000 personnel who go each week to Baseball Chapel realize that they are going to an evangelical Christian service? This is unfortunate, since not all mainstream Christian denominations emphasize faith-based salvation to a degree that denigrates legitimate religious alternatives, and thus makes it difficult to have meaningful dialogue and healthy working relationships between people of different faiths."

Krattenmaker, estimating that up to 40% of pro baseball players are evangelists, said there has long been a "strong alignment" between Christians in sports and the Christian right.

"The first public displays of Christianity in sports started in the ë70s, when [football star] Reggie White popularized overt evangelizing. But after Reggie retired, he basically renounced everything he had stood for," he said. "After 9/11, that's when they started this practice of singing God Bless America in the 7th-inning stretch. For many progressives, in the context of what was going on, it was like baseball was completely endorsing this rush to war and President Bush's agenda."

Krattenmaker said it particularly irritates him when athletes — whether it's Super Bowl star quarterback Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals or basketball point guard and NBA champion Chauncey Billups of the Denver Nuggets — attribute their touchdowns, home runs or winning shots to Jesus Christ.

"Many evangelical Christians suggest that God had a hand in them winning. This doesn't make much sense when you think of how many Christian athletes are in the game today," he said. "How come nobody ever thanks Jesus when they lose? I know a lot of Christian ministers who'd have a problem with that."

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