America’s One True Religion

CultOfCelebrityby Jon N. Hall    1/25/15
“Tell old God that the last man you saw on earth was Quantrill.”  •  America is a Christian nation, or so some would like to believe. But, just as in Europe, traditional religion is losing its sway in America, and a substitute religion is taking hold. This new religion, however, doesn’t have much to do with God.

Nowadays, America’s real faith is the “religion of self.” As the poet R. P. Dickey once observed, “People walk around acting immortal.” They sashay about as though they were gods. As fewer folks celebrate Mass, they might celebrate themselves. But if they don’t celebrate themselves, they celebrate other mortals. We call these other mortals “celebrities.”

America has a culture of celebrity. Some of our celebrities are celebrated for nothing more than their celebrity; they’re “famous for being famous.” Many American celebs seem to have no redeeming qualities; we’re celebrating the wrong celebrities. There’ve been only twelve men who have trod the Moon, yet we ignore them and celebrate Eminem and Snoop Dogg.

There is one sphere of contemporary America that celebrates the religion of self with the fervid mania of zealotry. The hold of sports on the American psyche and imagination is so complete, so absolute, that for some poor souls it’s their one true religion. And if fans worship certain athletes, those athletes join in in their adoration, exulting, gloating, and prancing in the end zone. In a tribute to the boxer Joe Frazier upon his death, Fox News reporter James Rosen writes:

“Don’t you know I’m God?” taunted Muhammad Ali, in the first of the epic trilogy of heavyweight prizefights with Joe Frazier that defined the early 1970s. Ali even took to accompanying each word — Don’t — you — know — I’m — God? — with a swing of his fists, unleashing another flurry of his lightning-fast punches. Frazier, undaunted, singularly unaffected by Ali’s sophomoric doggerel and sophisticated psy-ops, kept boring in on his opponent, a steady, bobbing, weaving machine, and spat back through his bloodied mouthpiece: “Well, God, you gonna get whupped tonight!”

To cater to our new religion, most major metropolitan newspapers devote an entire section to sports. And if something big happens to a city’s team, like a championship, the news is not only reported in the sports pages, it’s splashed across the front page as well, above the fold. Sports news covers scores, stats, newly broken records, significant feats (such as triple plays), trades and firings. There’s the coverage of honors, such as the Cy Young Award, the America’s Cup, and inductions into Halls of Fame. And then if some local sports god dies, the news coverage of that can go on long after his relatives have stopped grieving.

Most local TV newscasters devote much of their nightly half hour to sports. Throw in commercials and the weather forecast and there’s not much time left for real news. Entire cable/satellite TV channels, like ESPN and ESPN Classic, are dedicated to sports. There’s even a channel devoted to a single sport: The Golf Channel. Just as with The Weather Channel, sports newscasters do forecasts, where panels of gurus deliver their divinations about who’s going to win the next big game.

Sports news devotes a lot of space to covering the impact of a team on the community: parades after championships, riots after championships, fans watching big games in saloons, anxiety about the city’s team moving to another city. The hubbub over LeBron James’s departure from Cleveland is testament enough that sports really is a religion.

One corner of sports news coverage that gets more and more ink is behavior: brandishing firearms in the locker room, cursing at officials, brawls at ball parks, steroids, pine tar, low blows, asterisks (see steroids), thuggery, abuse of women, abuse of dogs, lying to Congress, marital infidelity, and antics in the end zone. There was a time when such behavior would be considered un-sportsmanly conduct. But that was before athletes ascended to godhood, and the gods have their own rules.

Some might think that my thesis — that sports are a religion — is undone by the advent of Tim Tebow, with his overt displays of old-time religion. Tebow is a fine young man and many fans adore him. But I still see a lot of self-worshipers cavorting on the field. Former NFL great Fran Tarkenton celebrates Tebow in the Wall Street Journal with “Does God Care Who Wins Football Games?” and recounts his own experiences decades ago with prayer before games:

Before every game, no matter what team I was on at the time, the coach would always ask the most devout player to say a prayer. … The prayer was always pretty much for the same thing: Let there not be any injuries, let everybody play a good game — anything except to win the game. No one ever asked to win the game, probably for fear that God would punish us for asking. After this moment of devotion, the team would all shout in unison, “Now let’s go kill those S.O.B.’s!”

Sports are a multi-billion dollar industry. So naturally, sports journalism spends a lot of time on money issues: salaries, bonuses, contracts, union demands, union strikes, product endorsements, and free agency. (Aren’t we all free agents?). Golfer Tiger Woods is now a billionaire, the first in any pro sport. Parade magazine reports that the 2009 income of Mr. Woods was $100 million. 100 mega bucks for hitting a ball around with a stick. That’s pretty good compensation for a “sport” that doesn’t even require one to breathe hard or work up a sweat. (The scare quotes around “sport” are because golf isn’t really a sport. With players like John Daly, golf can’t be a sport. One likes John Daly; he’s a good ole boy, and a helluva golfer. But athlete he is not.)

Now Charlton Heston was an athlete, a natural athlete. Chuck had a classy chassis and even looked good in a loincloth. When he won the chariot race (video) against Rome and the greater world in the epic 1959 film Ben-Hur, Pontius Pilate commended him thus:

A great victory.
You are the people’s one true god … for the time being.
Permit us to worship.
I crown their god.

Such is the mentality of sports fans to this day; we need our gods. But sports are meant to be more than mere physical contests; they’re supposed to demonstrate certain intangibles — character, will, and grace under pressure. American sports fans would do well to ponder these lines from Tennyson’s poem “Sir Galahad”: “My strength is as the strength of ten, / Because my heart is pure.”

How many pure hearts do we find in today’s sports? And if today’s sportsman has the strength of ten, it’s because he’s juicing, taking steroids. We’re reverting back to the pagan days when it was acceptable to horsewhip your opponent in the middle of race. Today, we root for Messala, not Judah. We’ve lost our reverence for the aforementioned intangibles. Today, winning is the only thing.

America’s secular religion is in dire need of a reformation — we mortals need to be celebrating other “gods.”

(NOTE: The opening quote is from “Quantrill’s War: The Life and Times of William Clarke Quantrill, 1837-1865” by Duane Schultz, page 259. The second quote is from a poem in Acting Immortal by R.P. Dickey (University of Missouri Press, 1970). Mr. Dickey was an interesting guy, regardless of what one might think about his poetry. Here’s another sports article of mine for your amusement.)


Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (1432 views)

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26 Responses to America’s One True Religion

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    If anyone actually knows who that celebrity is in the article thumbnail, then shame on you. Don’t you have better things to do? 😀

    That image came up during a Google image search for “cult of celebrity.” I’m pretty sure it’s not Dennis Rodman. Other than that, I can’t be too sure.

  2. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    If anyone actually knows who that celebrity is in the article thumbnail, then shame on you. Don’t you have better things to do? 😀

    OK, I’ll bite. Is that the singer who wore a meat suit? I can’t think of her name, but I think of Madonna when I see her. The poor girl is not terribly attractive and seems to be trying to draw attention away from this fact.

    Looks a little like Gary Busey in a bad wig.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I have no idea who he or she is. It could well be Gary Busey with a bad wig. Thanks for burning that image into my brain.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I believe the celebrity culture is a direct outgrowth of the materialist philosophy which has infected the West. If there is no transcendent meaning to being, fame and fortune become the highest ideals. And in our relentlessly egalitarian society, it is only proper that the talentless achieve the towering heights of our culture, the envy of the masses.

  4. Timothy Lane says:

    Well, I sure as liberalism have no idea who the photo features.

    As for the thesis, I think entertainment celebrity is at least as powerful as sports celebrity. The reason more attention is devoted to sports than to movies, TV, and music is that there is so much of it. There are several major sports (including such individual activities as fishing), which operate at many levels. Although the rise of internet coverage is reducing sports coverage (as it does other forms of news as well) in the actual newspapers, they want to appeal to all their readers, who follow a wide array of teams. (Elizabeth, for example, pays at least some attention to Wake Forest at least in basketball, which isn’t something one would expect to be a major interest in Louisville, Kentucky. And people follow different professional teams for a variety of reasons. High school sports are also covered.)

    So my main point would be that the sports celebrity is no more the deity than the big movie star or musician (e.g., the Beatles aka the “Fab Four”), and maybe even less so. Obituaries for any notable figure can be extensive (which does speed up my reading of the paper most of the time); for example, the Curious Journal devoted quite a bit of coverage to the deaths of Jim King (president of the City Council) and Wendell Ford (a former governor and senator). Of course, they were both Democrats; I doubt Jim Bunning (a former baseball star and conservative Republican politician) would get as much.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Geez, it’s heartening that anyone still remembers Fran Tarkenton.

    I do know that there are a lot of people who are celebrity watchers in one form or another. I don’t happen to be one of them. As much as I admire, say, Charlton Heston or Humphrey Bogart, I have no desire to read a biography of them. They were actors. They may have been interesting people as well but to see behind the screen persona is to see what? Typically you’re not going to find all that much that is commendable, although Heston himself, of course, did have many commendable off-screen activities. But reading about some Hollywood actor’s string of wives or bouts with drugs or alcohol is not quite the same as, say, reading a biography of Winston Churchill.

    Just let the stars be stars. It’s what they’re good at. And they are not me. And I am not them. And except for the money, in most cases I wouldn’t want to be them. This is one reason I don’t want to peek behind the silver screen too much. I like the old-fashioned idea of glamour. As Alan Swann said, “I’m not an actor. I’m a movie star.”

  6. GHG says:

    I agree that for too many people sports has become too cunsuming. Rather than a past time to indulge in when more important things have been taken care of – like family, home chores, community service, and worship of the one true God, it has become primary, often to the exclusion of those other things.

    However, I can’t agree that sports alone is America’s new religion. I think other forms of leisure and entertainment and celebrity worship are just as devastating to the American culture for other groups of Americans that pay no attention to sports. I think it’s more accurate to call it the religion of self-indulgence.

    • Rosalys says:

      “However, I can’t agree that sports alone is America’s new religion.”

      Mr. Hall had it nailed at the beginning of the second paragraph with, “Nowadays, America’s real faith is the religion of self.”

      As for the thumbnail, I was kind of hoping it was something photoshopped from many pieces to create the hideous thing – but I suspect it is “real.” Sigh!

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        One of the logical conundrums we run into when lamenting the centrality of “self” is that the polar opposite of concentrating on the self is losing the self in one collectivist or totalitarian scheme or another.

        And yet certainly an over-concentration of self-fulfillment has had dire consequences in the West. With most European native populations reproducing at well below replacement levels, as Mark Steyn says, people can’t be bothered to even propagate the next generation. Having children would get in the way of maximizing the time the spend planning their next vacatioin.

        And so I would say this “religion of self” has been a destructive thing for Western Civilization when taking the broad view. Having children is about as un-self-centered as you can get. When having children (or even getting married, which is an increasingly rare thing), you live to a large extent for another.

        Somewhere in all this is a happy conservative medium. We cherish individualism (as opposed to collectivism), but also the notion of living for something nobler than a never-ending pursuit of entertainment.

        I have no problem with sports, sports channels, or any of that stuff. It’s always a matter of how much, not if. Freedom does produce a plethora of products. And it requires that we discipline ourselves to choose wisely and to know that’s it’s okay to do so. Alternatively, it’s too easy to get caught up into a sort of cultural “everyone is doing it” where normal and good is decided by the quantity of something, not the quality.

        I think we ought to run out and support conservative or traditional American ventures, such as “American Sniper.” But I think we’re going to have a hard time lowering the signal-to-noise ration in regards to the amount of garbage that our entertainment-based cultures produces. But we can pick through the best and comment on it here. This is one of those things this site is about.

  7. NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

    Jon is certainly correct to shine a light on the excessive importance our society places on sports, and perhaps it’s part of the culture of celebrity. But I’m not sure it’s a religion exactly – I think Leftism is actually the religion of many today. The obsession with sports has always seemed to me to be a sign of lives that lacked purpose and drama, of people who fought no interesting battles in their own lives and who therefore sought vicarious excitement – and achievement – though the battles of others, trivial though those battles might be (typically boys’ games such as basketball, baseball, and football).

    I’m certainly not against participatory sports – I think it’s far better to join a softball league yourself rather than sit around watching professional baseball, even though you’re not likely to play anywhere near as well as the guys on TV – but listening to your coworkers go on for an hour each Monday morning about whatever the Chicago Bears had done the day before was always a jarring experience for me. Didn’t these guys have anything better to do with their lives? It just didn’t seem healthy to me – and it still doesn’t.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      One thing I noticed some years ago is that the tension of Election Day (will my chosen candidates win?) is extremely similar to the tension of key games (e.g., the World Series when one has a clear rooting interest). Vicarious competition may not be the real thing, but for some of us that’s all there is.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’m certainly not against participatory sports – I think it’s far better to join a softball league yourself rather than sit around watching professional baseball, even though you’re not likely to play anywhere near as well as the guys on TV

      I also think Jon has written a fine article. But I would tend to characterize this situation as a function of being a passive entertainment culture.

      The Spartans were a military-based culture. The Romans were an empire-based one. The Dutch a trade-based one. Islam a conquest-based one. America a profit-based one. New Zealand a sheep-based one. Cultures are, of course, usually a mix of influences. But they can also have a predominant influence.

      And I think “passive entertainment” marks our culture as well as any other. In many ways, this is simply the result of the success of our way of life. The basics of life — food, clothing, and shelter — are easy to come by, with even minimal effort. That has left us with more leisure time. And technology itself has led to so many ways to be entertained in incredible ways: movies, radio, television, theatre, video games, computers, etc.

      To know an American (or Westerner) is to know what entertains him.

  8. SkepticalCynic SkepticalCynic says:

    There are a few things that sports figures can do that fits into the real world. Like, say a guy that can shoot a basketball into a hoop or throw a baseball might be able to throw a grenade accurately at an enemy. A man that can run fast could run down a man about to escape. But the real world skill set of professional athletes in a real life setting seems to me limited. On the other hand, if we used all of that energy to build low cost housing everyone could have their very own home. I am not a sports nut and when I watch sports for only a moment, I can’t help thinking I have seen this very game before. The pay these fellows make is scandalous. Maybe, I am just full of S**t but that is my opinion and you can take it and ten dollars and get a cup of coffee anywhere.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Nobody’s a bigger fan of Rush Limbaugh than I am. But what you’re saying, Cynic, reminds me of his own genuflection to the cultural elite. He paid liberal flake Elton John a million dollars to play at his last wedding. Wouldn’t a conservative have spent 1/10 that much on Lee Greenwood? How about finding a band made up of wounded soldiers or something? Or just put a bunch of songs on a cassette and donate the money to a needy cause.

      Sports and celebrities are being made idols. Perhaps that is the most man can hope for in this life. He will try to raise himself by identifying with cooler, richer, or more powerful people than himself. He becomes the alligator on his shirt.

      You can see why Muslims do not tend to integrate into secular society. Whatever faults Islam has, and they are many, it is a belief system that has a deeper meaning for life than vapid celebrity culture. They reject that culture, and one can’t blame them in that regard.

      We’d also do well to reject this culture. Enjoy a game or TV show here or there, sure. But even better to just write it all off, find something better to do. I think for our own well being, it is incumbent upon us to wisely, reasonable, and thoughtfully – and with little or no zealousness – cast off these cultural beasts. We need not condemn them with balled-up fists of furry, for that would still be locating the responsibility for our lives outside ourselves, blaming that very culture for getting in the way of our happiness.

      No, we simply have to set it aside. Yes, comment on it so as to give other people courage that they needn’t come home at night, for instance, and spend the few free hours they have in front of the idiot box or something like that. Surely we were meant for better things that this vulgar, vapid, celebrity-obsessed, passive-entertainment-based, pop culture.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Well, I spend several hours there — but mostly watching FNC (and occasionally TCM or similar sorts of things, such as History Channel’s recent Sons of Liberty). Until baseball season comes, anyway . . . (I started watching FNC because I turned over there after Baseball Tonight was over.) But don’t worry, I don’t recall the last time I saw an awards show like the Oscars.

  9. Jon — your excellent article reminded me of two things:
    — the nonsensical fuss and bother over the inflation of footballs; if they’re sacred, sacramental objects then perhaps it’s understandable — just perhaps.
    — the quote from G.K. Chesterton’s second chapter of “Orthodoxy,” written over 100 years ago, “I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” The worship of self has been around for a while, The Oprah notwithstanding.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      To be fair, the concern over underinflated footballs, like the concerns over the use of steroids, reflects a concern over cheating. Thus, there is a legitimate reason for ire, though whether that itself explains how much concern there is may be a different matter. (Spitballs and corked bats are cheating, but they don’t attract the hostility that steroids and underinflated footballs seem to.)

  10. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    I find the recent gush of emotion regarding the death of Prince and other celebrities puerile. I have been waiting for someone to write about it and today came across the following article.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/our-public-grieving-over-dead-celebrities-has-reached-insufferab/

    Grief in today’s social media atmosphere is too often ego gratification.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Prince who? I hope Prince Charles is alright. He’s no “prince” when it comes to the monarchy, but they’ve had worse. I think. Don’t hold me to that.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      I can understand some amount of sadness over the death of someone whose work you appreciated. But only a little. When Karen Carpenter died, or for that matter Micky Mantle (I became a Yankees fan in his heyday), it wasn’t that big a deal for me. Of course, Mantle was long since required, and the Carpenters’ best days were long behind them. But the death of Antonin Scalia was more important by far than any of these.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I suppose there should be a “for whom the bell tolls” aspect to anyone’s passing. But, good god, the way some people do sort of make a religion of the celebrity culture. I feel for their family and friends but don’t take this stuff as a personal tragedy as some pop mavens do.

        But when people of real talent and relative decency pass before their time (Karen Carpenter, John Denver) it is a bit of a shock. Trust me, I don’t sit around and high-five when the latest Kennedy is killed. But I really don’t cared about the spoiled rich. And it’s sad when a Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, or Charlton Heston leave us. But at the same time, I feel lucky to have had them for so long…and they continue to live on and inspire us through their recorded works.

        As for Prince Rainier (or whomever the hell you are talking about), I don’t read People magazine or watch Sean Hannity, so I’m not up on who’s transgendered or who has died today.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          As for Prince Rainier (or whomever the hell you are talking about), I don’t read People magazine or watch Sean Hannity, so I’m not up on who’s transgendered or who has died today.

          One doesn’t have to read People or other such trash to be bombarded with this guy’s death. Every “main stream” media outlet on the web ran with the story at the top of the page for one or two days. The only way to avoid hearing about it was to avoid any news outlet. Even many foreign webpages ran with it.

          This is one of the major problems with the modern media. It is 24/7 and consumes content at an alarming rate. Not only that, it blows up insignificant information in order to pretend it is reporting something of importance, thus creating dishonest content. This includes the sewer of social media including Twitter and Facebook.

          In this way, it has corrupted the minds and thinking processes of many. Too many have lost the ability to discern what is truly important, unique and will effect their lives. Particularly those who have been brought up on what I will call the technomedia.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            I just hope Grace Kelly is alright.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              I am afraid I have some bad news for you….

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Are you sure you’re not talking about Prince Preibus? Or is that Reince Priebus? I always forget. [rim shot]

                But seriously, It’s a shame about Grace because I had heard she was going to appear in an upcoming romantic comedy co-starring John Candy, John Belushi, Robin Williams, and Chris Farley, with River Phoenix as the love interest.

                You will be sure to let me know when I’ve entered the realm of poor taste.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                What was the title, The Walking Dead: Lovers?

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