The spectacle of the Super Bowl offers an annual glimpse of our country’s essential religious unity, divided though it may seem. The commonplace observation that conservative American religion constitutes “God, guns, and football” will be on display as churches across Red America will reschedule their regular Sunday evening prayer services to accommodate kickoff. Progressives, by and large, will not have attended church at all, but that does not mean they will not be at worship tonight. Tonight’s half-time performance by a famous, bisexual Catholic will not just be entertaining, but according to an op-ed in the Washington Post, “deliver an overt, yet often unnoticed faith.” According to this writer, Lady GaGa will be singing a worship set promoting the American values of indomitable self-love, and affirmation at all costs. If the football game itself gives Red America its nationalistic drama of glory won from warlike competition, then the halftime show will offer Blue America a ritual cleansing from one of its living saints (its blessed mother is with child, and this is no less significant.) She will reaffirm its moral, therapeutic creed of non-judgmentalism and give her people the pure unvarnished sentimentality capable of overcoming hatred of the “other.”
My reason for making these observations is not to point out the hypocrisy or idolatry of American believers, but rather their location. It has been the subject of much discussion and hand-wringing that American church attendance is in decline. When someone is not sitting in church that means they have chosen, consciously or not, to be elsewhere. There are a multitude of explanations proffered for why people leave the church: people flee from judgment, they flee from hypocrisy, they flee from Truth. But there are fewer ideas about where people are going to. Creeping individualism seems to be the preferred explanation: they are going home. Ours is a narcissistic culture it is said, nobody gets together anywhere anymore, we bowl alone. But what if there was another church that folks were going to instead, one that held meaning for every congregant and a narrative of struggle and redemption with high production values besides?
That church is not the Super Bowl. Think of tonight’s extravaganza rather as that church’s annual national convention, where all its arts and ethics are on full display (even the commercials are joining in.) That church is the sum of human pride. Its gospel of iron self regard is preached from every possible pulpit. Its sacred word is written and rewritten and augmented and restated and sometimes deleted and apologized for, then reposted to comport with changing circumstances and attitudes, all in real time. Its god is itself and it is almighty. It judges itself, sometimes harshly, sometimes leniently, but all at its own pleasure. The church of the self-god is not a scattered, atomized field of individuals, it is a community of believers and despite its partisan divisions: it is one. It gathers here and there: this product, that John Oliver takedown, this nation, that protest. Tonight it will gather all together for a spectacle that will bind up, if not exactly heal, its internal rifts and wounds. That’s where we worship now.
The Baptist church by the park where I take my son to play is not a church anymore. Behind its preserved facade and bays of arched windows are ten, finely refurbished condominium units. It’s called Sanctuary on the Square. There will be a few Super Bowl parties there tonight.