Thursday, August 14, 2014

Religion, Sports and the University President

Our university president is not a soccer/football fan, but he has organized an open air World Cup championship game viewing event both this year and four years ago that is quite popular. Despite the 3:00 am kickoff, about 1,500 people watched the game on the main quad of our campus with President Joseph Sung. This is a classic example of why he was selected president; he is happy to mingle with students, and does it well.

After the event, he wrote a blog about what football (soccer) can teach us about life, and I just became aware of it last Friday when it was publicized by "Mass Mail System" with a link through our university alumni newsletter. I eagerly looked it up since I will be teaching a new course on "Sports and Culture." It is a pretty pedestrian list of values that apply pretty much to anything:
  • Find your place
  • Know the field
  • Play as a team
  • Get up where you fall
  • Guard your integrity
What struck me as odd was that the blog ended with a quote from the bible. People often say that sports is like religion, but that is not the case here. It seems inappropriate to end a piece with a bible quote. He only quoted the bible, and not other religious traditions. This made his statement seem like proselytizing.  Especially inappropriate is the quote he chose:
"I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing." (2 Timothy 4:7–8)?
Note that "the righteous judge" will only smile unto the believers (i.e. those "that love his appearing"). So the quote is not saying that if you guard your integrity and follow good behavior, you will be rewarded. It is saying only those who believe will be rewarded. This is not a universalistic statement, but a sectarian one. 

Upon greater reflection, however, it is probably fine for the president to end his personal blog entries with religious quotes. But then they should not be promoted to the university community through mass mailings. He can write what he wants in his blog, but it should not then be picked up and presented as an official University statement.

I am no doubt more sensitive on this because of my American upbringing. In the US, the tradition was to avoid religious statements in public so as to allow different faiths to co-exist. This tradition is increasingly misunderstood by evangelicals who try to rewrite history and claim the US has always been a Christian nation. As Steven Waldman has shown in Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America, "the United States was not founded as a "Christian nation," nor were the Founding Fathers uniformly secular or Deist. Rather, the Founders forged a new approach to religious liberty, a revolutionary formula that promoted faith--by leaving it alone."

I wish President Sung would not assault me with his religion and religious quotes, and would just leave it alone. His religion is his private matter; it can guide his actions and values, but he should not impose it on others. There is no way he can talk about it without it seeming to be judgmental. It may be OK for him to use biblical quotes in his personal blog, but not in messages sent out to the University community and in the Alumni Newsletter. We are, after all, a public, not religious, university.

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