Most Americans Approve of Athletes Thanking God for Success & Victory

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In America, it's somewhat common for athletes to display their religion openly. Some, for example, pray before the game or even immediately after a good play. The most famous example of this behavior is probably Tim Tebow who so ostentatiously bends on his knee and prays during football games.

Half of all Americans approve of such behavior with three-quarters of white evangelical Christians expressing their support.

More than half of all Americans say that Tim Tebow's success is due to divine intervention.

 

Thanking God for Sports Victories


Public Religion Research Institute conducted a survey in January, 2013 (margin of error of +/- 3.5%) which asked "Some athletes express their faith publicly by thanking God during or after a sporting event. Do you generally approve when athletes do this, do you disapprove, or does it not matter to you?"


 ApproveDisapproveDoesn't MatterDon't know
All Americans50%4%45%1%
White Evangelical Protestants77%
Minority Christians60%
Mainline Protestants47%
Catholics46%
Unaffiliated27%8%64%
Republicans67%30%
Democrats45%51%
independents43%52%
South60%
Midwest50%
West44%
Northeast39%

It should be immediately obvious that approval of athletes thanking God is much higher among Republicans and people living in the South. There are no great surprises there, just as there is no surprise in the huge difference in approval between white evangelical Protestants vs. the unaffiliated (presumably people without any religious affiliation, which would include atheists and agnostics).

It's noteworthy, though, that a lack of approval is not the same as disapproval. Only 27% of the unaffiliated approve of athletes thanking God during a sporting event, but this doesn't mean that the rest disapprove; in fact most simply don't care about the matter at all.

 
Tim Tebow Thanking God
Opinions are just as divided when people are asked about Tim Tebow. Poll Position did a survey in January, 2012, asking people aware of Tebow’s success what they thought about the source of his success ("Do you believe that any of Tim Tebow’s success can be attributed to Divine Intervention?"). With a margin of error of +/- 3%, people said:


 YesNoNo Opinion
Total43.3%42.3%14.4%
Republican54.2%31.7%14.1%
Democrat38.2%48.3%13.5%
Independent35.1%49.3%15.6%
Male40.6%46.8%12.6%
Female46.4%37.3%16.3%
White38.3%46.0%15.6%
Black59.5%37.1%3.4%
Hispanic81.3%4.8%13.9%
Other70.6%37.3%8.0%

So, Republicans are far more likely than Democrats or Independents to attribute Tebow's success to divine intervention. That's no shock, but it is interesting that Blacks and Hispanics are much more likely to agree with this position than Whites. The high number for Hispanic is especially lopsided — much more so than any of the other numbers seen here.

The totals are fairly consistent with Americans' beliefs about athletes generally: the same poll found that 53% believe God rewards athletes with success for their faith.

 
Religion and Sports
The integration of religion and sports is probably inevitable, given their importance and the passion with which people follow them. Nevertheless, such integration comes with numerous problems that would be hard to ever overcome. For the most part, these problems revolve around the injection of religion into what should otherwise be a secular event or contest.

First, there's a risk of creating unnecessary division and conflict among a team's fan base. In principle, fans should all be united in support behind their team, but that's hard to achieve when individual players are sending the message that certain religions and/or denominations are favored.

Second, overt displays of religiosity allow athletes to be drawn into religious and political debates where they probably don't belong. If an athlete really is doing something solely for themselves, like praying, then they can't also want to be used as a symbol for religious and political conflict in society. On the other hand, if that is something they want, then they are misusing their public position.

Third, there are questions of just how appropriate overt displays of religiosity really are, even from the perspective of a religious believer. This is especially true in the context of Christianity because Jesus is specifically cited in the New Testament as saying:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.

Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
-Matthew 6:5-8

This isn't merely advice, it's an explicit command. But how many Christians follow it?

Finally, every time an athlete praises God for some success or victory of theirs, then it follows that God will also be responsible for every failure or loss as well. Why not thank God in those cases, too, since they must surely be part of some important plan? Why avoid attributing failures and losses to God?
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