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The history of — and controversy over — baseball’s Faith and Family Night

Baseball season is about to kick off, and the pressure is on our own Arizona Diamondbacks after making an unexpected underdog run all the way to the World Series last season. 

There are more than 150 games in a baseball season, so the organization will be hosting an array of themed game nights for everyone from PRIDE Night to Mexican Heritage Night to Faith and Family Night. 

What began as an historically multi-faith night in many baseball organizations has become specifically associated with evangelical Christianity, according to Paul Putz. Putz is assistant director of the Faith and Sports Institute at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. The Show spoke with him about these faith-themed nights at the ballpark — and how they’ve become increasingly politicized.

Interview

PAUL PUTZ: You can really go back to the beginning of professional baseball in a certain sense, not necessarily with the faith-based themes associated with ticket sales, but with the desire to cultivate a church-going audience. So back when professional baseball is beginning, there were a lot of Americans, middle class, white, quote, unquote respectable, going to church, who didn't like some of the gambling and drinking and Sabbath-breaking playing on Sunday associated with pro baseball. And so some baseball leagues would try to market to that audience, and they would try to let them know that we're limiting some of these things you don't like, the alcohol, the gambling, those parts of it.

So, from the very beginning, there was a sense of audience, that there is this church going audience who baseball leagues and teams should be aware of and maybe try to engage with.

LAUREN GILGER: And, and toward the beginning, they were sort of multifaith, it sounds like, is that right?

PUTZ: Yeah. So when you, when you begin to see the organized faith nights, that really emerges in the 1950s and the, the earliest ones that I found examples of were interfaith nights. This is in the, at the time when America has just gotten out of World War II, the Cold War is starting, there is a sense of the atomic bomb has just been dropped. There's a sense of existential dread and crisis and who are we as a country? There's the Soviet Union, which is communist, and communism is associated with atheism. And so there's this sort of broad general belief in faith that for a lot of Americans is defining what it means to be an American. I mean, this is the era in the 1950s when under God is put into the Pledge of Allegiance. And so in the same way, sporting events becomes an opportunity to try to promote an image of faith, but an image of faith that's tied with pluralism, a sense of co-operation and belonging. And so the Baltimore Orioles in the 1940s and 1950s, they host these interfaith nights where they have Protestant Catholic and Jewish fans. And they're trying to promote an image of tri-faith America to fit into some of these Cold War trends.

GILGER: That's really interesting, but it seems to have shifted in recent history, right? Like this is a, this is a term now, faith and faith night or family and faith night as it may be called in some organizations are pretty linked to Christianity nowadays, right?

PUTZ: Yeah. And I would say, even a particular type of Christianity, an evangelical version of Christianity. And frankly, I have to include my own organization in this, we call ourselves the Faith and Sports Institute. And although we are interested in all areas where faith might intersect with sports, we are at an evangelical seminary. And so for us, the word faith is tied into sort of a default mode of evangelical expressions of faith. And I think many times that word has been coded in terms of, of sort of American cultural consumption, as something linked with a conservative Christian approach. And we see that with the faith nights as well. And Major League Baseball or in other sports, usually, if there's just a broadly named faith night, it is going to be some sort of evangelical faith night.

GILGER: Interesting. OK. So that has changed quite a bit then. And, and recently it, it seems like there's been a bit of a push and pull around this, like, it's become politicized in a way. What happened last year in LA at the Dodgers Stadium was an interesting example of this, right? Like there were protests over this certain group being involved in the PRIDE Night there, which is kind of on the other end of the spectrum. And then the pitcher Clayton Kershaw sort of asked the organization to expedite the announcement of this relaunch of a, of a specifically Christian Faith and Family Night. Are we seeing sort of faith theme nights coming in response to PRIDE Nights? Is that what's happening?

PUTZ: I think the order is probably a little bit different. So in 1991 or when we first saw some of these Christian faith, faith and family days that were organized and it started with the St.Louis Cardinals. They host the first event and it is linked with this conservative evangelical understanding of the faith, but also with some conservative politics are sort of by default, associated with these faith and family days early on after 1991. When we get to 2005, we have another version of these events, which are launched and led by a promoter named Brent High. And he goes to the Atlanta Braves. And in 2006, he's able to get the Atlanta Braves to host one of these faith and family events. So we actually see the Faith and Family Nights associated with a broadly conservative evangelical version of the faith. Those are happening in the '90s and early 2000s.

The PRIDE Nights and, and the popularity for PRIDE Nights really comes after that and we do see more of them. So last year, I think 29 of 30 major league baseball teams hosted a PRIDE Night and only 18 of 30 hosted a faith night. So it's true that we do see more PRIDE Nights in Major League Baseball. But those came after the faith and family events that were happening, you know, earlier on in the, in the 1990s.

GILGER: So what do you think this is like, do you think this is sports responding to the culture trying to sort of appeal to everyone? Do you think that's a good thing?

PUTZ: I do. I, I think it's a good thing to have a Faith and Family Night. And I think it's a good thing for teams to host a PRIDE Night. I think at Major League Baseball stadiums, you know, we can mythologize and maybe go too far in talking about how sports promotes unity. I mean, I think the truth is sports always have been political, they always have been a place where Americans have competing ideas about what it means to belong, who we are as a country. All of those things play out in sports, too.

But it's also true that sports are one of those few spaces in our communities where you really do have a diversity of values and beliefs and opinions all shared by a fan base. And, and they have this one thing in common, is that they root for a particular team. And so I think if you're a team, Major League Baseball team or any sports team, you would want to say if you're a fan, you're welcome here. And for Major League Baseball, 162 games, there's just going to be a lot of promotions that you need to have. There's going to be, there's going to be Star Wars events and, you know, all sorts of other nights that you might have so to have, you know, one, one day of the year where you reach out to a segment of your fan base, maybe, you know, one of those days it's the LGBTQ+ community. One of those days, it's the conservative Christian community. I think that's actually a healthy thing for American society to be able to do that. So of course, there are dangers and there's potential areas of conflict and controversy. But as a whole, I would, I would like to see that, that practiced and even celebrated, that, that we can have fan bases that have diverse opinions, but they have this one thing in common.

GILGER: Is it though contributing to division to, to sort of, you know, you have your night and you have yours and everybody's sort of taking to their corners in a way?

PUTZ: That's a possibility. I think that certainly could happen. I also think it could be an opportunity to, to find ways to maybe connect and, and reach out, but you're absolutely right. It also is a chance to exacerbate tensions. I think people are always looking to find something to get mad about. And in our social media age, that is a real challenge that, you know what plays out in the stadium in a local community can become used to, you know, to generate outrage or to become part of this broader cultural narrative. So I recognize that danger. I still think that it can be a healthy thing for a team to recognize different types of fan bases that it has and a healthy pluralism allows people to be public about who they are and what they value. But to do so in a way where they, they still belong, they're still a part of the community, a part of the fan base.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.