Many fans watch their favorite baseball team with a religious devotion. For Baseball Chapel, an evangelical organization with unrivaled access to Major League Baseball’s teams, sports are a vehicle to spread the word of religion. Reporting for the Jewish politics and culture magazine Moment, Karin Tanabem looks at the history and controversy surrounding Baseball Chapel, an organization that managed to keep a low profile since it was founded in 1973. In 2005, however, Baseball Chapel caused a stir when one of its chaplains confirmed Washington Nationals outfielder Ryan Church’s suggestion that his Jewish ex-girlfriend might be “doomed.”
The troubled relationship between evangelicals and baseball is nothing new. Until the mid-1800s, Tanabe writes, “most American churches staunchly opposed baseball because games were held on Sundays in violation of Christian-based Sabbath statutes or civic blue laws.” Today, religion and sports are intimately connected, with many football and teams incorporating chaplains in their organizations. Baseball Chapel, for example, boasts some 500 volunteer chaplains and $2 million in net assets, with donations up 25 percent over the past four years.
Baseball Chapel’s gradual shift toward a more sectarian approach has strained the relationship between religion and sports once again. The recent incident involving Ryan Church has drawn criticism from inside the religious community and out. Some have even accused the organization of “pandering to the Christian Right.” Still, Baseball Chapel insists that the organization doesn’t exclude people of different religions. The group’s website tries to have it both ways, saying:
Baseball Chapel is a non-denominational Christian ministry committed to the spiritual development of people throughout professional baseball. Although we hold to Christian beliefs, we seek to minister to baseball players regardless of their religious beliefs. Our desire is to encourage baseball people through the message of Jesus Christ, so that they would understand the importance of following Him.
The track record Baseball Chapel has demonstrated over four decades of service shows that the organization has never sought to be divisive, intrusive or to exclude anyone of another faith.
Ah, that clears it right up.