As someone who belongs neither to the forthright 44% of Americans who indicated in a poll earlier this week that they were “very likely” to watch the Superbowl on Sunday nor to the equivocal 22% who declared themselves “somewhat likely” to watch the game, I was nonetheless very interested in the Public Religion Research Institute poll—available to those reading this electronically by clicking here—that yielded those numbers. And there was a lot to be interested in! There was, for example, the arresting detail that, although two-thirds of the country is either very or somewhat likely to watch the game, only 3% of Americans identify strongly with either the Baltimore Ravens or the San Francisco 49ers, the two teams playing in New Orleans on Sunday. How that works—and why all the other people (i.e., the ones who presumably don’t really care which team wins because they’ve failed emotionally to bond with either) are going to tune in, I have no idea. Maybe they just like watching football. Maybe it’s the commercials. Maybe they’re hoping that some famous person’s clothing will unexpectedly fall off during the halftime show. But, speaking realistically, how many times a century could that possibly happen?
The part that interested me the most, however, was the statistic—both fascinating and slightly weird—according to which more than a quarter of Americans—27%, to be exact—apparently believe that God will play a decisive role—presumably the decisive role—in determining who wins the Superbowl because, in fact, they believe that God plays a role of some sort in determining the winner of all sporting events. (How that thought correlates with the detail, also revealed in the poll, that almost twice as many Americans—which is to say, well more than half our co-citizens—believe that God rewards athletes possessed of faith in God’s existence with success and good health, I’m not sure. Perhaps the concept is that they are rewarded with personal success, but their teams are not rewarded with victory unless God has some additional other reason for granting their teams victory on the field. The poll didn’t go too deeply, or really at all, into theological detail.)
It isn’t, to be sure, a majority position. But how various groups within our American mosaic respond to the question of whether victory in the Superbowl is or is not going to be the result of divine favor is also instructive. Among evangelicals and minority (i.e., black and Hispanic) Christians, more than 40% believe that the team that wins the Superbowl is going to be the one God will have chosen (or perhaps already has chosen) to win. That number can be compared to the fewer than one fifth of “regular” (i.e., non-evangelical, more mainstream) Protestants who feel that way and even fewer (although still an amazing 12%) of religiously unaffiliated Americans. In some ways, the final statistic is the most amazing of all: more than one in ten Americans who have no religious affiliation at all expect God to determine the victor in Sunday’s game.
Other results of the poll surprised me slightly less. More than a third of Americans living in the South expect that the victor on Sunday will be the team God chooses to win. That compares slightly reasonably with the 28% of Midwesterners, the 20% of Easterners and the 15% of Americans living in the west of the country to hold a similar expectation regarding the way the winning team will achieve victory.
You would expect –or at least I would have expected—more of a split between Republicans and Democrats than the poll revealed to exist, but I certainly would have expected there to be more Republicans who see God as the ultimate Umpire. The poll suggested otherwise, however: 25% of the country’s Republicans say God will decide who wins on Sunday, while 28% of Democrats feel that way. Nor does either group differ that much from Americans with no party affiliation, 26% of whom hold that view. So this is clearly not a party thing anymore, really, than it is a regional one.
Mysteriously absent from the poll is any reference to Jewish Americans. Are our numbers so small as to be negligible in a survey like this? Or did Jewish respondents just laugh at the question without answering it formally, thus accidentally eliminating themselves from the final tabulation of responses? Nor is it obvious to me what exactly it means for God to decide who wins a sporting competition. Does it mean, for example, that God detects the team that is more deserving of victory because they have practiced harder and learned to play the game better and directs good fortune their way? But why wouldn’t the more practiced team of better players win anyway? Or is it just the opposite the case, which is to say that God detects which teams’ players are more virtuous and possessed of finer morals, and then grant that team the win even if they are neither as talented nor as well-practiced as their opponents? But if that is the case, then why is it that the teams that actually play better seem so regularly to win over opposing teams featuring less skilled players who play less well? Or is the idea perhaps that God rewards virtue by making the team possessed of more godly character traits into better players who win their games because they then play better than their opponents and deserve to win?
For Jews, the notion of a God Who sits around in heaven and decides (to change metaphors) who is going to hit which golf ball the farthest in which tournament is not likely going to be one that gains much traction. Our tradition speaks endlessly about God as the just Judge of the world, as the heavenly arbiter of right and wrong, and as the living Source of justice in human society. But the specific way God rules the world is far more complex, and far more subtle, than simply sitting around and either arbitrarily or not arbitrarily handing out wins and losses. Is it invariably the case that less virtuous litigants lose in court, or that the Olympian athlete possessed of the finer set of moral values invariably wins the gold? If that were so, as so many seem to think, then it should be possible to work that idea in reverse and identify the most virtuous of men and women in our society by charting the degree to which they have been successful in their chosen competitive arena. But that does not seem quite right either—as adequately demonstrate any number of famous, successful athletes who have been proven, generally after-the-fact, to have behaved poorly or even criminally wrongly in their private lives.
The burden of faith cannot be made lighter by mouthing slogans or insisting on the truth of notions that none can demonstrate. The majority of citizens of our country apparently expect victory in the Superbowl to go to the team that wins the game by playing it on the ground, not that is awarded victory by an unseen Spectator watching the game from heaven. But the minority that feels differently constitutes—if the poll is right that 27% of Americans hold that view—something like eighty-four million people.
That so many Americans are possessed of such a bizarre, almost childish view of God’s role in human history is not something in which we who take religion seriously should take any specific pride. The Talmudic expression ha-olam k’minhago noheig means that the history of the world and its citizens unfolds in its own natural way with reference neither to what should or could be, nor to how things would be if God insisted on micromanaging the affairs of humanity. It would be just, the Talmud notes, for stolen seeds to punish their purloiners by refusing to sprout in the ground, yet they can and do grow regardless of who plants them. It would be just and morally reasonable for illicit coupling never to lead to conception, but that happens too. And so too does it occasionally happen, I think, that teams that have failed ethically or morally to have earned their victory are victorious nonetheless. The world keeps spinning along! But what our faith does teach us, and insistently, is that justice is absolute…only that to perceive it requires standing further back from the arena of human affairs that any of us could ever really manage. It requires seeing this world and the next world, this generation and countless generations to come. It requires stepping outside of the merciless flow of moments to allow history and destiny to coalesce in a present moment too brief for any adequately to fathom in all of its inner complexity, let alone to evaluate in terms of its cosmic importance. It requires understanding that the story is bigger than any of us, bigger even than any of us can imagine…and that it has to do with the destiny of humanity, with the role each of us plays in moving humanity forwards towards redemption, and with the place of the House of Israel in the family of nations…not with who wins a football game. Even the kind with really, really cool commercials and halftime shows in which, yes, sometimes famous singers’ wardrobes malfunction.