Jeffrey Scholes, associate professor of religious studies in the Department of Philosophy at UCCS, researches, writes and teaches on the relationship between religion and sports and American political theology.
Scholes, who also serves as the director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life, recently authored “Christianity, Race, and Sport,” a critical examination of the ways in which Protestant Christianity and race have interacted, often to the detriment of Black bodies, throughout the sporting world over the last century. The volume was published by Routledge in May 2021.
Tracing examples from Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali to Serena Williams and Colin Kaepernick, Scholes argues that white Protestant norms disproportionately police, discipline and punish Black athletes.
Scholes “show[s] that white America has a deep history of relying on Protestant Christianity to justify a white supremacist order that holds Black bodies to be subordinate, valuable for physical labor, and available for white profit,” wrote Annie Blazer, associate professor of religious studies at William and Mary College, in a review of the book. “This is a challenging and sensitive study of the workings of white religion in the world of sport. Scholes shows us that religion matters if we want to understand race and sports in the United States.”
Scholes answered seven questions on the new book, from Protestant Christianity’s efforts to “order” Black athletes to an analysis of Colin Kaepernick’s prophetic voice.
1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
I would describe my book as an attempt to analyze what happens at the intersection of Christianity and selected African-American athletes. The relationships between race and religion, race and sport, and sport and religion have been covered quite extensively in the scholarly literature. But the application of a Christian (more specifically white Protestant) lens over the sporting landscape and then focusing that lens on race relations, I argue, yields important insights into all three concepts.
2. How did you get the idea for your project?
I wrote a book with my colleague, Raphael Sassower, on religion and sport several years back, so I suspected that another book could be written on the subject. Another colleague, Paul Harvey, invited me to write a chapter for an edited volume of his, and the topic needed to be race, religion, and sport. While learning of the sheer amount of undiscovered information that comes to the surface when these three are put together, I decided that a book on the subject was warranted.
3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process?
Once I had the overall theme for the book, the only things that changed were the events, people, and historical situations that I was going to discuss. For instance, I intended to have an entire chapter on Michael Novak’s book, The Joy of Sports, and its inattention to the issue of race, but it didn’t work out, so I have a section of that hypothetical chapter in the preface. In addition, I wanted to write a chapter on LeBron James and his Twitter hashtag #WeWillNotShutUpAndDribble, but I ran out of time.
4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
I suppose that the idea that most excites me in the book is the main idea (which is really helpful when this is the case!): the idea that the primary political function of religion is to bring order to chaos. And when mapped onto the sports world, we find white Protestant Christianity continually searching for ways to “order” Black athletes both on and off the field or court. In other words, “play the right way,” when directed to Black athletes, is usually code for “play the white way.” Or the demand that former quarterback Colin Kaepernick stand for the national anthem sees the Christian faith and nationalism come together to punish Kaepernick as well as distract white America from the racial injustice to which he is trying to call our attention.
5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?
There is a pre-pandemic and post-pandemic answer to that question. Pre-pandemic research/writing usually involved several sustained hours each, but not every weekday. A sabbatical and relatively free summers freed up considerable time, as it should!
Post-pandemic times, with two small children at home, meant that if I could squeeze in a half an hour in here and there, I was grateful. The process over this last year has been difficult to say the least. During pre-pandemic days, I split time between my work and home office to write. But as you might suspect, writing was pretty much confined to my home office during the pandemic.
6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?
“The ‘disordered’ countenance of Black athletes that reminds of us their extant status as mere Black bodies to their white owners and fans act as a source of political theology…I’m interested in how the religion of whiteness, whether subterranean or out in the open, either working to deracinate a story of a Black athlete or more perniciously stoke the fear of Black bodies while cheering them on from a distance, serves the interests of the white establishment.”
7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?
My next book project will likely focus on religion and sports fandom. Obviously this subject involves much more than race — class, gender, capitalism, technology, and politics all play important roles in constructing the fan/sport relationship. However, my research and writing of this last book will no doubt influence the ways that I think about this next one. I can’t imagine any project that I take on involving religion and sport not taking into serious account the role that race and many other similar issues play in the shaping of both religion and sport.
UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.