Baseball and white evangelical Christianity have a long history going back to the days of Billy Sunday (1862-1935), an outfielder in the game’s National League in the 1880s who went on to become widely accepted as the “most celebrated and influential American evangelist during the first two decades of the 20th century,” according to a 1955 biography.
Sunday converted to Christianity and in 1891 turned down a lucrative baseball contract to go into full-time ministry with a Chicago YMCA. Although Sunday was ordained by the Presbyterian Church and his revival meetings were nondenominational, he was a strict Calvinist and taught traditionally evangelical and fundamentalist doctrine such as the inerrancy of scripture and that one must be saved to avoid hell.
The links between white evangelical Christianity and “America’s pastime” continue today through organizations such as Baseball Chapel, a group that appoints team chapel leaders to provide chaplain-like services to players in both Major and Minor League Baseball to “bring encouragement to people in the world of professional baseball through the gospel so that some become discipled followers of Jesus Christ.”
According to the group’s website, chapel programs are established for all 210 teams in the major and minor leagues and many independent league teams. About 3,000 players, coaches, managers, trainers, office staff and other team personnel, umpires and members of the media attend. The agency was formed in 1973 when Watson Spoelstra, a Detroit sportswriter, approached Commissioner Bowie Kuhn with the idea of an organized chapel program for every major league team. By 1975, all major teams had a chapel program. The minor league component was started in 1978, according to the Baseball Chapel website.
All board members and staff, paid and volunteer, agree to the group’s statement of faith “without reservation,” its website notes.
White evangelical Christianity has evolved in the U.S. and there are varying views as to its origins, although it’s a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of the Christian faith. There was greater overlap of belief with mainline strains of the faith (e.g. Lutheran, Methodist, Episcopal) in the early 20th century but a starker line was drawn in the 1980s when Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority linked itself to the Republican Party. There was overlap with the Jesus Movement — conservative Christianity’s answer to the Woodstock era — where the born again experience was emphasized and eventually a full-on counterculture formed with books, movies, and especially pop- and rock-flavored gospel music created by and for this audience. These products existed to a far greater degree than anything comparable in mainline or Catholic Christianity.
Today, just 34 percent of white U.S. evangelicals support same-sex marriage (numbers are higher among 18-29 year olds but lower overall in the Bible Belt) compared to 67 percent of white U.S. mainline protestants and 66 percent of white U.S. Catholics, according to the Public Religion Research Institute. And white evangelical support of President Donald Trump is at an all-time high, according to the same group — in an April poll, 75 percent held a positive view of the president (81 percent of among white evangelical U.S. men). Trump won the white evangelical vote by more than 80 percent according to polling data.
Not all white U.S. evangelicals believe the same doctrine. There are charismatic and non-charismatic (i.e. “speaking in tongues”) strains, but there is much overlap of belief. Baseball Chapel’s statement of faith does not mention same-sex marriage or activity but reads much like those of other evangelical, anti-gay groups with language calling the Bible the “inspired, infallible word of God, inerrant in the original manuscripts.” It offers “daily devotions” with topics like “staying humble in success,” “thy will be done,” “remember God’s faithfulness” and many others.
Some LGBT activists say even if Baseball Chapel isn’t openly condemning LGBT people, the fraught history of LGBT people and the historically heavily heteronormative world of U.S. sports culture is cause for, at least, caution.
“Institutional religions have been part of the American sports story from the founding of this country,” says David McFarland, producer of the new sports documentary “Alone in the Game,” about the struggle of LGBT athletes. “I am very concerned for our LGBTQ athletes and their ability to fulfill their dreams in sports. Americans have habitually turned playing fields into praying fields. And more than ever, sports have also figured into the making of America’s civil religious discourse as athletic expressions of national identity. Extreme religious themes and ideas continue to attach themselves to sports in new and innovative ways keeping LGBTQ athletes off the playing fields and living in silence.”
But is there a danger of being too wary if Baseball Chapel has no anti-LGBT history to point to? If anything, it appears to have attracted more controversy for other reasons. Josh Miller, a minor league umpire for eight years, said the weekly services — always optional though held in the close confines of a locker room that made them difficult to avoid — made him uncomfortable because of his Jewish faith in a 2008 New York Times interview. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that a Baseball Chapel volunteer chaplain’s assertion that Jews are “doomed because they don’t believe in Jesus” inspired Major League Baseball to reevaluate its relationship with Baseball Chapel (it continued).
The group doesn’t appear to have attracted much controversy in recent years. McFarland says there are larger groups — some with annual budgets over $100 million — doing Christian outreach ministry at all levels. He says Baseball Chapel, in terms of size and scope, “doesn’t even compare” to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a more explicitly anti-LGBT group whose statement of faith says marriage is “exclusively the union of one man and one woman.”
Baseball Chapel, which has eight staff members (three are part-time) and hundreds of volunteers, declined the Blade’s request for an interview. In an e-mail, Baseball Chapel President Vince Nauss said the group’s work is private.
“Baseball Chapel’s service to the teams are intended to be behind the scenes and thus we are careful to respect the private nature of our role with the players and staff members,” Nauss wrote. “I rarely grant interviews with media outlets and therefore decline the request.”
Local minor league teams say their chaplain services have been non-problematic. A spokesman for Maryland’s Hagerstown Suns says there are no openly gay players on this season’s roster that he knows of. He wasn’t sure if any of their current chaplains are with Baseball Chapel.
Geoff Arnold, director of broadcasting and public relations with Maryland’s Frederick Keys, a AA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, says he’s interacted with the Baseball Chapel folks “a decent amount.” There aren’t any openly gay players on the Keys, he said.
“They typically offer short services for players on Sundays regardless of whether the team is at home or on the road,” Arnold wrote in an e-mail. “To call it a religious group would be a stretch since they are more of a service for players who want to be able to practice their faith but can’t make it to normal services. … I can tell you that the services are non-denominational and inclusive to everyone regardless of age, race or sexual orientation. … Participation is 100 percent voluntary and it’s simply a resource. Everyone I’ve ever interacted with from Baseball Chapel has been first rate people who really care about the players and in some cases have played themselves.”
Arnold said it’s a “super low-key environment, the services are very short and nobody is pushy or makes you feel uncomfortable.”
But what about other groups? Are chaplain services offered for Catholics, Jews or even possibly Muslims? Do the leagues give those faiths equal time?
Arnold says he knows of “a bunch of Catholic guys who attend Baseball Chapel.” He was unaware of any Jewish groups offering comparable services and says there are few Muslim players in minor league baseball.
Rev. Anjel Scarborough, an Episcopal priest and LGBT ally in Ellicott City, Md., says she’s unaware of mainline, Catholic, Jewish or Muslim chaplaincies in sports settings. She says white evangelical chaplains are common in other sports as well. It’s not surprising, she says, since outreach efforts are part and parcel with evangelical belief.
While Pride nights in Major League Baseball are huge now (this year 24 out of 30 teams have Pride events planned), that only started in the early 2000s. Christian groups have been at it in baseball decades longer.
So is it any big deal for LGBT people if Baseball Chapel is that benign? Opinions vary.
Aside from LGBT issues, Scarborough said she has other concerns.
“Spiritual care from a group like this is very one-dimensional and only represents a narrow bandwidth of Christianity at that,” Scarborough, priest in charge of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Md., says. “Evangelicalism operates on a view of the church known as the salvation model. … In essence, this view is the church exists to win souls for Christ, hence the effort to proselytize in alternative venues like sports teams. But that’s a pretty narrow view of why the church exists.”
She says the evangelical vs. mainline view of salvation also differs.
“The view in evangelical Christianity is all about salvation so you can go to heaven when you die,” Scarborough says. “In general, mainline Christianity sees salvation as a here-and-now reality, not exclusively about a future promise about what happens after death.
Matthew Vines, executive director of the Reformation Project, a group that offers a “Bible-based, gospel-centered approach to LGBTQ inclusion,” says groups that aren’t more unequivocal in their LGBT positions can still be problematic.
“They may not have any anti-LGBTQ language on their website, but given how many conservative Christian groups offer harmful advice about how to respond to LGBTQ people who come out,” Vines said, “a closeted player considering coming out would likely worry about the message the group would send to its members about whether or not to support an out teammate.”