FORT WAYNE – Maybe you’ve heard already, but the Super Bowl is this Sunday. The Denver Broncos are playing the Seattle Seahawks.
And here is a make-believe scenario: 21 seconds remain in the game. Denver trails 27-23, but has a fourth down at the Seattle 3-yard line. To illustrate the tension of the moment, TV cameras pan both sidelines. Scattered Denver players are on a knee, praying. But so are some of the Seattle players, with their helmets bowed and their eyes shut tight. The thousands of fans inside MetLife Stadium have their gloved hands reverently folded. The millions at home are silently praying amid the wings and pretzels. Half are asking for divine intervention to allow the Broncos to win; the other half asking for a Seahawks victory.
So here’s the question: To whom is God listening?
According to a survey conducted this month by the Public Religion Research Institute, more than 20 percent of Americans believe God has control over who wins sporting events; which means if you’ve got 10 people at your Super Bowl party, two of them are convinced God has chosen the winner.
OK then. Who’s calling the shots – God, or Denver quarterback Peyton Manning?
“Frankly, I think God has bigger things to worry about than influencing the outcome of the Super Bowl,” First Presbyterian Church pastor Jeff Lehn says. “I don’t think God minds when we watch it and cheer our hearts out for one team or the other. But ultimately, I think prayers that are lifted up so that one team will outlast the other are – to God, at least – a little bit elementary.”
Not only do 20 percent think God determines the outcome, but the poll confirms that 48 percent of Americans believe athletes of faith are rewarded with success.
“It’s one of those tricky questions,” former Pro Bowl quarterback and NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner told The (Hackensack, N.J.) Record. “I believe God has your best interest in mind. How that correlates to winning and losing football games, I’m not fully sure.”
Warner, a devout Christian, won a Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams, and lost a Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals.
Warner also played briefly with the New York Giants, the team Jim Tighe has followed.
Tighe, a deacon with St. Jude Catholic Church, shares the same belief as Lehn – that God doesn’t favor one team or individual over another when it comes to the Super Bowl or any other kind of athletic endeavor.
“If God was answering our prayers about sports, (Giants quarterback) Eli Manning would have thrown a lot fewer interceptions this year,” Tighe says.
“I think we sometimes have a tendency to ask God to fulfill our agendas,” Tighe says. “That’s not really how he interacts with us. People ask me, ‘What do you pray for before a game?’ You’re praying for a good game, a fair game; you’re praying that nobody gets hurt; you’re praying that there’s a good spirit of sportsmanship and that we get the best out of what the athletic competition is going to be in, not necessarily that we beat the living daylights out of the other guys.
“We’re all God’s children. I just don’t see how He’s going to choose one team over the other. If he had, Notre Dame would never have gotten the life beat out of it by Alabama.”
Notre Dame lost the BCS college football national championship to Alabama last year, 42-14.
“I admit that I, myself, have prayed those prayers in my youth,” Lehn says. “I played football through college – (Division-) III, of course – but I did my share of praying for a kicker to make a field goal so that my team would win. At the end of the day, I think prayers lifted up on behalf of a football team are pretty minor compared to the ones that mean a lot more to God.”
The public testimony is predominantly a Christian action.
“Jews are not always known for wearing our religious hearts on our sleeves,” says Rabbi Arthur Weiner of Hackensack, N.J. “Many Jews have a different sense of how necessary that is to do that in public.
“On the other hand, let’s take the Tim Tebow phenomenon,” he adds. “A lot of people made fun of it, but here was a devout Christian, an honorable man, a world-class athlete – although he may have not had the success later in his career – at that moment, him choosing to acknowledge his creator as the source of his strength, his victory, his athletic feat? I may not see the need for it, but I don’t see anything wrong with it, and I think it demonstrated a certain piety, which I think is admirable.
“For me, that’s a far cry from asking God for your team to win.”
That difference, Weiner warns, is the key – does God give a player the talent and strength to help his team to victory, gifts that the player expresses gratitude for, or did the player pray to win and God rewarded him with a confetti-filled victory and parade at Disney World? The latter is discomforting to Weiner.
“You’re coming dangerously close to making prayer and the religious experience silly, undignified and petty,” he says. “We don’t want to trivialize religious experience.”
Kara Yorio of The (Hackensack, N.J.) Record contributed to this story.